PAUL SAHRE

FOR PAUL SAHRE, GRAPHIC DE­SIGN WAS A CALL­ING, NOT A CHOICE. HERE HE SHARES HIS VIEWS ON PUTTING YOUR­SELF INTO YOUR WORK, THE RE­NAIS­SANCE OF BOOK COVER DE­SIGN, AND POINT­LESS PROJECTS WORTH DO­ING ANY­WAY…

Computer Arts - - CONTENTS - WORDS: RUTH HAMIL­TON

The renowned graphic de­signer shares how he forged his ca­reer as a sole prac­ti­tioner, and the strug­gles he had to over­come along the way

De­sign is not a job for Paul Sahre; it’s an iden­tity. He’s gained re­spect in the in­dus­try for forg­ing a cre­ative path driven largely by pas­sion, rather than power or fi­nances, and is best known for his in­no­va­tive and un­ex­pected book cov­ers, his graphic work for the New York Times, and that time he cre­ated – and blew up – a life-sized card­board mon­ster truck hearse (more on that later).

To­day, Sahre’s a suc­cess­ful sole prac­ti­tioner, but the jour­ney hasn’t al­ways been smooth. Here, he speaks about the highs and lows of work­ing alone, the strug­gle be­tween money and ethics, and why the dig­i­tal shift has been a bless­ing in dis­guise for book cover de­sign.

Why did you get into graphic de­sign in the first place?

I started my ca­reer think­ing I was go­ing to change the world. It’s not turned out that way. There are many other things you can do with your life if that’s your main mo­ti­va­tion. So… why be a graphic de­signer? It gives me a sense of pur­pose and mean­ing. It’s a call­ing – it’s what you do and who you are. And it’s sur­vival. It’s like breath­ing. It keeps you alive. There are times when we have con­trol over it and are aware of our breath­ing, and there are times where it’s a re­flex. Is it even a choice?

You’ve writ­ten a mem­oir of your ex­pe­ri­ences in the de­sign world: Two-Di­men­sional Man. What prompted you to do this?

To an­swer your ques­tion it might take an­other 300 pages. The short an­swer is I think I’m try­ing to un­der­stand why I’m a graphic de­signer. I also feel like graphic de­sign is mis­un­der­stood – by non-designers, but also by many designers. I don’t see it as a job. It’s a dis­ci­pline. A call­ing. It’s who I am. It’s not some­thing I can turn off at 6pm ev­ery day. I’m a de­signer when I’m de­sign­ing, but I’m also a de­signer while I watch a movie or walk down the street or when I’m shoot­ing free throws or eat­ing break­fast.

Do you turn down jobs be­cause they don’t fit with this ide­ol­ogy?

Oh sure. As designers we are re­spon­si­ble for the work we do and who we do it for. One thing I don’t want to par­tic­i­pate in, an­other de­signer might, and that’s to­tally fine. You have to fol­low your own moral code. Some­times that gets lost. It’s not just a me­chan­i­cal, prob­lem­solv­ing thing and I’m a ro­bot and what­ever is put in front of me I fig­ure out and de­sign. Talk about mak­ing it easy to be re­placed!

You could prob­a­bly make a lot more money than I do if you took on projects for a dif­fer­ent rea­son, but we all have to sleep at night. And I learned that the hard way in my first job. This firm I worked for did a lot of mil­i­tary, in­dus­trial com­plex stuff, and it re­ally freaked me out. It was a soul-search­ing thing. There was very much a sense of, “I have to do this, it’s my job” and I should be able to just put that aside. But I’ve since learned that’s just crazy. You can’t just do that.

How does be­ing so im­mersed in de­sign af­fect the rest of your life?

I do think there’s a fun­da­men­tal dis­con­nect in de­sign. It’s for the most part an al­tru­is­tic ac­tiv­ity –

“I’M A DE­SIGNER WHEN I’M DE­SIGN­ING, BUT I’M ALSO A DE­SIGNER WHILE I WATCH A MOVIE OR TAKE A WALK”

you typ­i­cally re­spond to sit­u­a­tions that are not of your mak­ing – and at the same time you have to bring your­self into the process for it to be any good. And to me, that di­chotomy is fas­ci­nat­ing. You wouldn’t think these two things have any­thing to do with each other, but with re­ally good de­sign work, you see a per­son in there.

You’re well known for your book cov­ers. What is it about this field that at­tracts you?

It’s a sin­gu­lar de­sign chal­lenge: a graphic door­way to an ex­pe­ri­ence some­one has. But it’s in­ter­est­ing. When­ever a book doesn’t sell, it’s the book cover’s fault. When it does, it’s not be­cause of the book cover.

I don’t know. Peo­ple say print is dead, right? The dig­i­tal shift has cre­ated more op­por­tu­ni­ties for me as a book cover de­signer. We think about them more as per­ma­nent ob­jects now; the pub­lish­ers are more open to some­thing in­ter­est­ing with a cover de­sign. For me, it’s been noth­ing but good… at least un­til print does ac­tu­ally die.

What’s your ap­proach to fig­ur­ing out what should go on a book cover? It must be dif­fi­cult to dis­til so much into such a small area, and your de­signs are of­ten very pared-back.

It re­ally de­pends on the book. There are times when it’s a process of dis­till­ing, other times it makes sense to do the com­plete op­po­site. I’ve de­scribed my ap­proach as an ‘any vis­ual means nec­es­sary’ way of work­ing. A cover I de­sign should feel right for a par­tic­u­lar book and at the same time, should feel right for me. Cov­ers that I’ve de­signed can look quite dif­fer­ent, but they still feel like they come from me. I like to fol­low an idea where it leads.

Can you give us an ex­am­ple?

My lat­est cover for Chuck Kloster­man. It’s de­signed to re­late to other books I’ve de­signed for Chuck, but this one is al­most noth­ing: cen­tered Hel­vetica on a white back­ground. But ev­ery­thing is up­side down. So it’s idea-driven, which is per­fect for this book. It’s a book about ques­tion­ing ev­ery­thing.

What are the big­gest ad­van­tages of be­ing a sole prac­ti­tioner?

Get­ting back to this be­ing a call­ing, I’ve found it’s the only way I can work where I still feel that way about it. You have much more abil­ity to nav­i­gate and say yes or no to things. And put your­self in a po­si­tion where you can do work that you re­ally, re­ally care about.

Keep­ing it small, you get to do much more hands-on work. Cer­tainly when you get to my age (over 50), a lot of my peers have nat­u­rally pro­gressed into more of a di­rec­tor or man­age­ment role, where you’re more con­cerned with big ideas than ac­tu­ally mak­ing things. I like mak­ing stuff. Even hav­ing a staff of four or five peo­ple I’ve found takes me away from ac­tu­ally de­sign­ing in a way that I just don’t like.

… and what are the big­gest dis­ad­van­tages?

Money. It com­pli­cates things. Some peo­ple do great work with big bud­gets. I never was able to fig­ure that out.

It’s not re­ally the case any more, but there have been times where I’ve

“BOOK COV­ERS ARE A SIN­GU­LAR DE­SIGN CHAL­LENGE: A GRAPHIC DOOR­WAY TO AN EX­PE­RI­ENCE SOME­ONE HAS”

squeaked by fi­nan­cially at times. It’s al­ways self-in­flicted though, be­cause I also do a lot of self-ini­ti­ated work, where I don’t have a client. Or like the mon­ster truck project – there was a client, but that pro­tect didn’t bring in any money for six months. Well, all the ex­penses were paid for, but I had to buckle down and make some money af­ter that just to keep things go­ing. But I re­ally grav­i­tate to­wards those projects.

Also, you have to do ev­ery­thing. I started my ca­reer work­ing on projects and I al­ways re­sented some­one be­cause I thought they had fucked some­thing up. But when all those peo­ple are gone, it’s just you – you can only blame your­self. And you have to take out the garbage. You have to do your taxes. Keep your­self or­gan­ised…

You men­tioned a project there where you cre­ated a full-sized pa­per mon­ster truck hearse for the band They Might Be Gi­ants, when you’d only been com­mis­sioned to cre­ate an al­bum cover (www.paulsahre. com/when-will-you-die). How do you feel about that project, look­ing back on it now?

Think­ing about that project al­ways makes me smile. Partly be­cause it was awe­some, partly be­cause it was point­less and partly be­cause it’s over. It took over my life for six months. That thing had to die.

Some of your fam­ily is in the de­sign world too, is that right?

I’m mar­ried to a graphic de­signer [Pen­ta­gram part­ner Emily Ober­man]! It en­hances it. My fa­therin-law was a graphic de­signer and my dad was an aero­space en­gi­neer, and I loved him dearly but we didn’t have that con­nec­tion that I had with my fa­ther-in-law. When some­thing’s that in­ter­twined in your life…

I’m still try­ing to get my mom to un­der­stand what the hell I do. It drives me crazy. I wrote this book, I sent it to her, and she didn’t say any­thing about it. Noth­ing. And it’s not like she’s not a car­ing per­son and she didn’t read it. She did. It’s weird.

A drawing ap­peared on my mom’s wall that I did when I was a teenager. It had been in the pos­ses­sion of my younger brother who died. This drawing be­came a weird tal­is­man of how lit­tle your mom un­der­stands you. It was the only re­ac­tion I got from the book be­ing pub­lished.

I sent a copy of the book to my mom and didn’t hear any­thing. Then maybe three or four months later I went up to visit and she’s taken the

“THE THEY MIGHT BE GI­ANTS PROJECT TOOK OVER MY LIFE FOR SIX MONTHS. THAT THING HAD TO DIE”

drawing down. Why? Frankly, it’s not some­thing I feel like get­ting into with her. It’s bet­ter for me (and her) that it’s not on the wall.

Do you have any ad­vice for designers who want to forge a ca­reer as a sole prac­ti­tioner, but don’t have a rep­u­ta­tion yet or big port­fo­lios?

I had to get fired from my last job, be­cause it’s scary not hav­ing that steady pay cheque. It also de­pends on where you are. This isn’t an an­swer, but in school I took a ‘busi­ness of graphic de­sign’ class and I re­alised, sigh, that there was so much em­pha­sis on pre­sent­ing your work, and what you wear. I was like, “For­get this, I’m gonna work as hard as I can to be the best de­signer I pos­si­bly can and then what­ever hap­pens, hap­pens.”

That’s not ad­vice, but I know for me the work has al­ways be­got more work. Hav­ing some busi­ness acu­men can be re­ally help­ful, find­ing the right part­ner can be re­ally help­ful, find­ing the right al­lies or meet­ing the right peo­ple, al­ways stay­ing open to pos­si­bil­i­ties, and re­ally at the be­gin­ning be­ing sort of ag­gres­sive and get­ting out and let­ting peo­ple see you in some shape or form is su­per im­por­tant. I don’t know if that’s a road map – it’s all pretty ob­vi­ous stuff. Most im­por­tant: make, make, make.

Do you and Emily come at the con­cept of cre­ative con­trol from dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions? She’s ob­vi­ously part of a team at Pen­ta­gram…

Yes, very much so. Our ap­proaches and view­points can be very dif­fer­ent, but we are the same when you re­ally get down to it. Emily is a de­signer through and through. Her par­ents de­signed the na­tional flag of An­guila. They were there on the is­land in the 60s and they were the only graphic designers there! Su­per cool. She’s a de­signer in the same way – it’s her life, and it’s not just a job.

Would you ever con­sider work­ing to­gether?

We don’t work to­gether. I know some cou­ples can do it and still be happy. That said, I show her ev­ery­thing I do. She’s a sound­ing board for me and of­ten I don’t take her ad­vice or do the op­po­site, but it’s in­valu­able. We talk about work of­ten at home. She’s do­ing the new open­ing for SNL and she’s send­ing me mes­sages say­ing, “What do you think about these type­faces?” We do that. It’s nice.

“I’M STILL TRY­ING TO GET MY MOM TO UN­DER­STAND WHAT THE HELL I DO. IT DRIVES ME CRAZY”

This page: pub­lished in 2018, Two-Di­men­sional Man ex­am­ines Paul Sahre’s ex­pe­ri­ences over 30 years in de­sign.

This page: Sahre used Brazil­ian au­thor Clarice Lis­pec­tor’s like­ness for the new English trans­la­tion of 1949 novel The Be­sieged City. Op­po­site (top): Sahre has de­signed al­most all of Chuck Kloster­man’s book cov­ers. Op­po­site (mid­dle): this il­lus­tra­tion ac­com­pa­nied the NYT re­view of Jonathan Safran Foer’s an­ti­car­ni­vore tome Eat­ing An­i­mals. Op­po­site (bot­tom): an il­lus­tra­tion for a New Yorker ar­ti­cle about the con­tro­ver­sies around former En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency head Scott Pruitt.

Above: O.O.P.S.’s work for They Might Be Gi­ants.

Be­low: Sahre’s ethos for book cover de­sign is “any vis­ual means nec­es­sary”.

video for When Will You Die by They Might Be Gi­ants also fea­tured a mon­ster-sized ghetto blaster.

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